Nicholas Phillipson, 1937-2018

Tributes paid to expert on the Scottish Enlightenment

March 15, 2018
Nicholas Phillipson

One of the leading authorities on the Scottish Enlightenment has died.

Nicholas Phillipson was born in August 1937 and studied at Aberdeen Grammar School, the University of Aberdeen (1958) and then, after completing his national service in the Royal Air Force, the University of Cambridge (1962). At Cambridge, he went on to complete a PhD on “The Scottish Whigs and the reform of the Court of Session, 1785-1830” (1967), and also chose to take Duncan Forbes’ celebrated special subject on the Scottish Enlightenment, a field that he very much went on to make his own.

In 1965, even before completing his doctorate, Dr Phillipson took up a post as lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh. He was to remain there until he retired in 2004, as emeritus reader in history, although he actively continued his research and writing. He also held a number of visiting positions at Princeton University, Yale University, the Folger Institute in Washington DC, and LMU Munich.

Throughout his career, Dr Phillipson devoted most of his research to the Scottish Enlightenment and its wider European context. Along with a number of highly influential chapters in books, he produced full-length studies of Hume: The Philosopher as Historian (1989, reissued in 2011) and Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (2010), although his broader overview of the whole Scottish Enlightenment was never completed. He was also a founding editor of the journal Modern Intellectual History.

It was in the pages of that journal that Colin Kidd, professor of history at the University of St Andrews, offered a striking 2014 tribute to what he called “The Phillipsonian Enlightenment”. Not long ago, he argued, Scottish intellectual history had been “a desert of comparative academic neglect”. Dr Phillipson had played a crucial role in establishing it on firm foundations, making him “the historian of Scotland best known in the wider world”. Furthermore, “in the graceful elegance of his prose, his cosmopolitan sophistication, the unrelenting drive of his arguments, his demanding search for compelling answers simultaneously synoptic and multi-stranded, and his cheerful scepticism”, he could be seen as “a striking modern embodiment of the era he loves”.

Thomas Ahnert, head of history at Edinburgh, recalled Professor Phillipson as “an accomplished oboist”, “a generous patron of the arts” and “a brilliant host”, as well as an inspiring teacher who “once said that he thought of teaching as something analogous to a musical performance”.

Professor Phillipson died of cancer on 24 January.

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